Tuesday, September 27, 2022

This indigenous prison has a ‘dark, sad history’. But what role could it play in the future?

The Old Robbourne Gaol, once the second largest prison in Western Australia, has attracted international attention and will be the focus of a documentary.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images of people who have died.

University of Liverpool Social Justice professor Barry Godfrey and filmmaker Paul Cook traveled from the UK to Robourne to record the prison’s history and find out what the locals wanted to see with it.

“It’s a really dark, sad history, but it’s also part of a legacy mark,” Professor Godfrey said.

“It’s a community property. It’s a beautifully constructed building. It’s many things to a lot of people.”

He said most people know about Rottnest Island, an original prison island for Aboriginal people that was converted to Holiday Island.

Professor Godfrey says the documentary will explore local opinion on the future of the heritage campus. ,ABC Pilbara: Samantha Goerling,

The old regional prison was established in 1884 and inmates from northwest WA were taken away from the Aboriginal prison on Rottnest Island, where overcrowding was becoming fatal.

In 1883, cramped conditions contributed to an outbreak of influenza that killed 59 people.

Overcrowding later became an issue in the Robourne Gol, where wings designed to hold 14 people often held 40 people.

An old room with canvas ceilings, stone walls and wooden doors in white arches.  Two steel wash basins are mounted on one wall.
Overcrowding was often a problem in the Old Robern Gaol.,supply,

marched thousands of kilometers

Part of Professor Godfrey’s research, presented to the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, involved studying Robourne’s archival prison registers from 1908 to 1961.

He found that most of the indigenous people imprisoned in Roeborne were sentenced in the courts of Derby or Wyndham and taken to prison on foot.

“But people regularly marched from the Kimberley, from all over the Pilbara, to different parts of Western Australia.”

A group of chained indigenous men in lion robes, holding trousers, shirt, cap, gun stand with indigenous man.
Aboriginal prisoners with police guards outside the Robbourne Gaol, 1896.,Supply: State Library of Western Australia,

“Imprisoned in Chains”

But the situation did not improve after reaching the prison, with the temperature reaching 50 °C in summer.

“I don’t want to polish it. It was terrible,” said Professor Godre.

“It’s incredibly hot. The food is terrible. The situation is terrible.”

Close up picture of a stone wall with iron fixers.
Professor Godfrey says that at night the prisoners were chained and tied to the wall. ,supply,

Professor Godfrey said that about a quarter of those inside were for crimes of public order – mainly public drunkenness – and about three quarters were property crimes, often theft or killing of livestock.

“And of course, many Aboriginal people were sentenced to death in situations where whites were not Europeans.

“If you were caught drunk as a local Aboriginal person, you could expect to spend some time within six to nine months.

“But if you were supplying them a drink, you could expect to get a much lesser punishment.”

The old Roeborne prison was closed in 1984, a year after 16-year-old Indigenous teenager John Patt was beaten up by police officers in Roeborne and later died in a cell in the prison.

It was one of the deaths investigated in 1991 by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Divided Opinion on Heritage Complex

Professor Godfrey said there was locally divided opinion as to what should be done with what he described as one of the most “important cultural and historical monuments, not only in WA, but in Australia”.

Two men stand with cameras on a tripod outside the old Robourne regional prison
Filmmakers Paul Cook (left) and Professor Barry Godfrey will make the documentary publicly available. ,ABC Pilbara: Samantha Goerling,

“Some people want it to be an arts center, some want it to be demolished. Some people want it to be a wellness center to enhance the health of the local people. And some people, some people want it Will be reopened as a prison,” he said.

“It is he who has fought history. This is the history of the present.

Professor Godfrey said his research on the Old Robbourne Gaol would be available online after completion.

“We’re going to make the film freely available on YouTube so people can see what we’re doing here and see themselves represented.”

Nation World News Desk
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